Adam Ash

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bookplanet: Why don’t English-speaking writers look to the Continent for inspiration?

Europe’s lost stories
Research rage. Why do English-speaking authors no longer look to continental Europe for inspiration? It may be American and British ignorance. But it may be that continental fiction is no longer interesting enough. This is not a problem of translation, it is a question of history—Do we have new European stories to tell each other?
By Julian Evans

IN DOUGLAS COUPLAND'S 1993 novel Shampoo Planet , his hero Tyler Johnson escapes his US West Coast home town to spend a summer in Europe. He writes home with disappointment: "Europe lacks the possibility of metamorphosis. Europe is like a beautiful baby with super-distinctive features who, while beautiful, is also kind of depressing because you know exactly what the child will look like at 20, at 40, at 99. No mystery." This anti-old world judgment fits Tyler's punk self-image—a faun at play in the busy fields of US consumerism—though on his return to America Tyler himself eventually metamorphoses enough to sell out completely, finding a position with a global leisure corporation in Los Angeles. Before he does, he qualifies his analysis of Europe in less self-conscious, more honest words. What is wrong with Europe, he adds, is that its efforts to be modern always flop. What constitutes modern? "France has never heard of Sunday shopping."

Tyler's judgment may seem trite, but Europe is in a curious position vis-à-vis such remarks. As possessors of a cultural history whose mixture of individuality and commonality once led the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia to describe it as "a reversible fabric, one side variegated, the other a single colour rich and deep," do we react to such criticism as Europeans, or as supporters of our linguistic and national cultures? The "Europe" we evoke today refers more often to an entity concerned with Brussels or Strasbourg or UEFA than to a feeling of cultural unity. In fact, the political and economic union we inhabit is acquiring something homogenised about it, and may run counter to our cultural needs. While departments in Brussels administer initiatives to preserve dying languages, their colleagues in other departments are doing their best to turn us into lifestyle consumers of identical stamp. The Czech writer Ludvík Vaculík, a respected opponent of Czechoslovak communism, wrote recently of the European Union's drive to disseminate a philosophy only of affluence: "The EU is not advancing human awareness and the development of Europeans but, on the contrary, will prove a major obstacle to them." Living in the simplifications of the present—euro-Europe—we are growing used to packaged experience: to a cultural virtual Europe of museums and folklore, a material Europe of second homes and city-breaks, a political Europe whose ideology is inescapably economic. So the question is not, how modern are we? We are, in Tyler's terms, superbly modern. The question, rather, is where do we belong? Is modern Europe still any kind of cultural reference point for its inhabitants? How much vitality—how much possibility of metamorphosis—is left of the threads that have bound Europe since the Renaissance?

SOME TERMS NEED TO be defined. Let us first substitute "literary" for "cultural," since it was the dangerous literary anarchists of the sixteenth century who were the draughtsmen of our commonality. The humanist bandwagon of Rabelais, Erasmus, Cervantes was a perilous vehicle to board; their exuberance in driving it straight at the edifice of religious orthodoxy had its desperate side. As a result of their writing, a continent departed in search of its identity, and we still give shape to that pursuit in the mongrel art of the Renaissance conceived by Rabelais and Cervantes: the novel. Without the form of the novel, there would be no Europe. (Three hundred years after Cervantes, when 70-odd years of cold war division produced a gulf across Europe, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova noted that Europe continued to exist in the east only by virtue of its novelists and poets). Narrating local and national itineraries, Europe's novelists made manifest both our identity and our connectedness as Europeans. Again and again in the masterpieces— Don Quixote, Gil Blas de Santillane (Alain-René Le Sage), Tristram Shandy (Sterne), Michael Kohlhaas (Kleist), Either/Or (Kierkegaard), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), In Search of Lost Time (Proust), In the Penal Colony (Kafka), Confessions of Zeno (Svevo), The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)—we have discovered not just our connectedness but the keys to modernity itself: to modes of thought and feeling that did not exist until Europe's writers gave them expression.

WITH A LIST LIKE THIS in hand it is easy to talk about Europe's pre-eminence as a literary culture; rapid inspection shows the last of those names died 60 years ago. In Britain the literary outlook shifted suddenly and decisively in the 1960s, away from European modernism and the successors of Sartre and Camus, our last continental icons, towards the American postwar realists: Updike and Roth, Bellow and Morrison. We have lost interest in the continent's literature, it is said, as a result of our Anglo-Saxon insularity. If true, that insularity must be of recent date, since the extinction of our literary intimacy with mainland Europe only came about after the British had been an exemplary European reading public for more than three centuries. Thomas Shelton's 1612 English translation of Don Quixote was the first in Europe. A remarkable admiration characterises England's reception of Cervantes and other Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries: Mme de La Fayette, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Laclos, Goethe, Jean Paul, Kleist. The 18th century, an admirable epoch of novelistic playfulness, was ruled in Britain by the spirit of Cervantes - an aesthetic convergence that was to continue for more than a century as Dickens and Thackeray converted Quixote's horizontal, ideological wanderings into fiction that journeyed vertically, aspirationally, up and down class (as Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert did in France). This is no neat geometry of mine, but the result of Cervantes having conceived the Quixote as a journey and of his first imitator, the Frenchman Le Sage, using, in Gil Blas de Santillane, the road as a means for his hero to seek out both a means of advancement and an identity.

IN THE 20TH CENTURY a remarkable change began to occur, in Britain and on the continent. As Europe's half-century of wars began to be played out, the products of the novel form—the chief vehicle for its cherished and carefully bequeathed humanism—abandoned aspiration to replace it with escape, resistance, fear. Theme was mirrored in form. The European novel, once about telling a story, began to be about the difficulty of telling a story. From 1919 onwards, as Paul Fussell notes in his survey of literary travelling between the wars, Abroad , the whole of Europe was "frontier-obsessed and… map-mad." The road of the novel now stopped at the border. (A sample of British novel titles from the Thirties amply illustrates this neurotic preoccupation with frontiers, trains and anxiety: Christopher Isherwood's Mr Norris Changes Trains, Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, Edward Upward's Journey to the Border, Eric Ambler's Journey into Fear.)

The continent disintegrated. Its themes coalesced into a single concern: how to deal with fracture? In June 2001, I interviewed Tadeusz Konwicki, chronicler of his generation's history and author of The Polish Complex and A Minor Apocalypse , in his Stalin-era flat in Warsaw. To Poles who had experienced Hitler's war, he said, and had afterwards had to deal with Stalin's communists, conventional narrative made no sense. "My generation time and again had to face the possibility of their lives being threatened. The traditional narrative structure could not express the psychological insight of the situations we found ourselves in."

The 20th century's cycle of war and atrocity did not just kill populations and explode Europe's cultural self-image. It disrupted its narrative. Its horrors worked differently on every life they touched; in their wake a myriad narrative fragments hung in suspension, waiting to be told. The gap between Britain and continental Europe dates from that time. Britain had shared in horror from 1914 onwards but in a specific sense did not suffer: its territory was not occupied, its borders were not compromised. This schism of experience was matched by a schism of form - in the 1950s, when France had Nathalie Sarraute's Portrait of A Man Unknown (1947) and Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers (1953), Britain had Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61). The British now turned to America, responding to its vitality, to an evolving narrative force in which one can see an unbroken vital line stretching from Scott Fitzgerald's America in The Great Gatsby to Thomas Pynchon's in Mason & Dixon . History had caused continental Europe's faith in narrative to falter in its stride; in the USA (as, variously, in Latin America and the Commonwealth) there was no pause in the gallop. A great, unbordered expanse of narrative lay all around.

What went wrong in the old world? A decline of the continental idea of fiction took place. This collapse at first seemed like the opposite, as if it was on the continent that the novel was advancing, while the Anglo-Saxon world was caught in a outdated formal cul-de-sac. The French nouveau roman—exploring a subjective, randomised world of objects and sensations—dismissed the narrative novel's "dubious relationship" with the world. Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the theorists of the new movement, declared in For a New Novel (1963): "How could style have remained motionless, fixed, when everything around it was in evolution—even revolution—during the last hundred and fifty years?…[Novels] survive only to the degree that they have left the past behind them and heralded the future." It was important to be modern, and even the British championed the nouveaux romanciers—because the conservatives attacked them.

But Robbe-Grillet was also the villain of the piece. As a writer he possessed prodigious skill at publicity but mediocre judgment (how could he otherwise have consented to write the text for David Hamilton's collection of vaselined erotica, Dreams of Young Girls?). In March 2004 he finally attained membership of the Académie Française. Michel Déon, an Academician and one of France's best-known novelists, wrote to me afterwards, "It's amusing to think that for 30 years this agronomist ran a thing called the nouveau roman which may have made his fortune but which ruined the reputation of the French novel outside France."

The nouveau roman arrogated literary gravity, fell into an impoverished emotional minimalism, and produced a generation of "novels" that were no thicker than a box of restaurant matches. The result almost fatally undermined French fiction. I had fed, from inky school bench onwards, on Maupassant, Flaubert, Zola, Céline, Proust, Sartre, Camus. My youthful spirit was bottled in the poetry of Nerval, Baudelaire and Valery Larbaud. It was French literature that had represented the greatest of the continent. During the 1980s I worked as an editor for a London publisher (the same who had published Sartre and Camus 20 years before). Each spring I would do the rounds of the Paris houses to see what was coming out. The answer was plenty, though practically nothing worth translating. In eight years I brought back two worthwhile French novels, one by Michel Déon, another by Patrick Besson.

France's self-absorption, its imperial pretension to be the regulator of the literary world (an ambition linked, I think, to its wartime defeat), was also ruinous for the rest of western Europe. Much of the rest of Europe accepted France's imperialism; simultaneously it diverted European readers' interest everywhere else, towards Britain, the USA, Latin America. Europe's literary reconstruction had demanded new forms; France had promised to provide them. But they were inadequate to the task.

SIGNIFICANTLY, at around the same time a new aesthetic from further east began to open up—defined by Milan Kundera (visible too in the fiction of Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kis, Lajos Grendel). If the novel is a European form, it is more accurately a western European form, and only later central and eastern European (and Russian). It came to central Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and central European novelists impinged only slowly on western consciousness. Neither Franz Kafka (died 1924) nor Robert Musil (d 1942) was widely recognised as a writer of European rank until after 1945. The collected works of Joseph Roth (d 1939), the great elegist of the tottering circus of Austria-Hungary, were not published in German until 1956. (In Britain we began to read Roth only in the mid-1980s). Kundera, first translated into English in 1970 with The Joke , was an exception, and his rapid ascendancy became the key to readers' entry to the aesthetic identity of central Europe—that unity of small nations cyclically kidnapped by "protective powers" and other tyrannies.

Kundera remained a one-man show. Western readers did not become truly familiar with the centre and east of Europe. This fact is important because it is the novelists of central Europe who can, with justice, claim to have found the forms they needed in the 20th century, and to have succeeded more far-reachingly than any of their western counterparts (except perhaps James Joyce) in making visible the modern era. Just as Cervantes' lesson was to have Don Quixote discover that the world did not resemble what he had read about it in books, both Kafka with his cosmos of impasse and Musil with his salutary collection of loose ends indicated how Europe, at the peak of its civilisation, was also at its most untrustworthy and discontinuous. There is surely a 21st-century resonance there. The world did not change forever after 9/11, as many commentators had it. Its fragility had been perfectly set down in the 20th century by other writers from that aesthetic crucible --- Andri´c, Broch, Canetti, Capek, Gombrowicz, Hasek, Hrabal, Kadare, Kertész, Kis, Konwicki, Kosztolányi, Krleza, Milosz, Svevo. What these writers also have in common with us in western Europe is that, though their stories may sound strange, their Europe is our ancestral Europe: a continent of picaresque risk in which the individual is sent out to venture everything, exactly as our fictional forebears were—our Gullivers and Shandys, our Candides and Marquises of O, our Frédéric Moreaus and Arvid Falks—a few centuries ago.

EUROPE OF COURSE is not merely a stadium of competing aesthetics. Each country's literature is its unofficial foreign policy, an expression of specific interests. We British - French, Czech, Swedish, Estonian - need to feel that specificity in ourselves and in others. Lose touch with it and we - Europe as a whole - will turn into a kind of atopia, a nowhere built in the image of an airport. In Portugal, its back to Spain and bounded by the sea, such specificity is concrete: its land, its rocks and rurality, are potent metaphors. In the Netherlands its character is psychological: less a country than a harbour, in its novels it is prey to the sense of homelessness that, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, most serious thought in our time seems to struggle with. It is always through its specific geography that the novel creates its metaphors, and a mosaic of places where human emotions can lodge. It is through its retelling of specific histories that it earths its own, and our, fears. Only through specificity can something universal come to life.

To partake of this carnival of locality is not easy. Problems of remoteness, obscurity, language - of translation - put us off. There is a thick domestic fog of media and publicity, thousands of books claiming readers' attention. Should readers really be demanding a continuous redistribution of literary priorities? There are signs too that, encouraged by publishers' hunger for commercial sensations, the novel of locality is giving way to the "cosmopolitan novel", in which the hero travels from city to city, starting in Athens, ending in Paris, the instigator or casualty of international love affairs. And reputations rise and fall for similar reasons. I think of the brief moment of fame for Balkan writers in Britain during the wars in Yugoslavia. Recently, I could not find in bookshops or on Amazon a single British translation of the novels of the Yugoslav novelist Danilo Kis, though Joseph Brodsky considered his novel Garden, Ashes "the best book produced on the continent in the post-war period."

Yet the most important change in our reading and writing habits has little to do with these factors. A century ago our individual cultures were permeable to each other; local, specific, interacting with each other on a basis of custom and respect. Before 1915, when Britain first introduced passports for international travel, no continental European country required one for admission. In Holland in 1933 the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor benefited from the Dutch welcome that promised the traveller overnight shelter in a police cell; in Germany, though harangued by Brownshirts, he repeatedly found himself on the receiving end of German hospitality. Here in Britain the publishers Chatto & Windus refused an invitation to translate Du Côté de chez Swann into English, on the grounds that any British reader who wished to read Proust's novel would be capable of reading it in French. When Gallimard distributed the book in London, the printing rapidly ran out.

Today, that permeability between cultures is oddly quaint. True, the Europe we inhabit is peaceful now as it was not then, politically and economically closer, a Europe of open internal frontiers and liberal outlook. Yet we have forgotten some of the virtues of that earlier porosity. Well-intentioned though the desire to end Europe's cycle of wars may have been, one consequence of the present political union has been a fading of our diversity, and of the respect it is due.

WHAT MIGHT WE DO, as thoughtful and responsible readers, to reinvigorate it? We can resist the EU's constitution and philosophy wherever it fails to incorporate the results of social, cultural and spiritual criticism. We can resist too our own cultures' headlong rush to conformity, assert our difference in the way that the novel, each time, asserts its individuality. In Britain we stand regularly accused of insularity - of too much difference - because we do not translate enough, a complaint that may be justified in a few cases. (There's no defence, for example, for our not having translated the collected stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis, the pioneer of modern Greek prose, nor for passing over the Hungarian Lajos Grendel, nor the Latvian Nora Ikstena or the Estonian Peeter Sauter.) But continental European critics and publishers who accuse us of indifference continue to shirk a harder task—that of interrogating the fiction to discover whether it is worth translating. During the 1970s and 1980s the British who, to some extent, had reason to be proud of their fictional record, were none the less frequently asking, "Why are the Americans so much better than us?" Elsewhere in western Europe, such self-criticism was non-existent. A recent book by a professor at the university of Grenoble, Pierre Jourde, has attacked this cycle of self-adulation. In La Littérature sans estomac ("Literature Without Guts"), an assault on the promotion of literary mediocrity, Jourde singles out cliques like that of Le Monde des livres , presided over by Philippe Sollers, guru of the literary Left. "In the precious world of contemporary literary life, writers—a weird species of mammal—graze calmly beneath the gaze of gawping onlookers in their cultural enclosures," Jourde writes. "In their dreams, they 'disturb', they anger those in power and upset the established order… In fact, no one is attacking them, and they are not hurting anybody."

The questions that need to be asked are simple. What is it that the continent's writers have to say? What might it be exciting to have cultural conversations about? About freedom? About the nature of democracy or modernity; about the value of history? Those who complain might conclude that proselytising on behalf of, say, the Albanian Ismaïl Kadare, the Portuguese José Saramago, the Pole Magdalena Tulli, the Swede Jan Henrik Swahn, the Estonian Jaan Kross would produce better results. Europe may now be smaller in cultural terms, having had to yield some literary eminence to Latin America, to the Indian subcontinent and its emerging world-literature fellows. The value of its fiction nevertheless endures in its diversity suggested by those names, in its continued rejection (one of the Renaissance's capital ideas) of one ultimate and perfect way to detect the truth. Telling stories is a way to deepen people's tolerance; the number and means of telling those stories can never be sufficient. A European literature still exists, if it defends to its last breath its right to be local.

IT IS EASY to talk about the decline of the continental idea, but fifty years is a blink of an eye in the history of the novel. After Cervantes published Don Quixote , Spain was so overwhelmed it took 250 years to produce another novel. In France, the novel seems once again to have a voice in the person of the disaffected editor of a review, Perpendiculaire , who in 1994 published his pointedly titled first novel, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte ("extension of the domain of the struggle"), published in English as Whatever. Michel Houellebecq—Balzac's representative in the globalised world—has said of his second novel Atomised , an incendiary attack on the French Left, that: "The idea which prevailed was that a book was a style, a writer was a style, only a style. In my book there is more sociology than psychology, and that's new." Not quite, but every French novelist of the 19th century would have known what he meant.

What is the novel, and what is it for? It is a metaphor in the form of a story that renders the world legible. It has no pedigree, only a blueprint that came out of the old, opiate landscape of La Mancha the best part of 400 years ago. It is self-renewing; hard-wired for resistance to propaganda, orthodoxy, massification, fakery, bullshit. The vitality of the European novel—or perhaps I should say the European vitality of the novel—rests on an insistence: that we question historical experience, seeking the individual in the communal, the communal in the individual. That seeking is bound to be inconclusive, because the sense of who we are is not fixed, but an engagement with reality. What kind of engagement? A novel, more than any other artistic form, is a work made by an individual for an individual. It is a request, as the earliest fables were, from writer to reader. Here I am as a human being. Do you recognise anything? Are we both human beings? When a writer of Houellebecq's singularity asks that question, we are clearly willing to listen. Do we miss opportunities to listen more widely? Undoubtedly. Has our ear for the European novel been damaged by euro-Europe, by globalisation, by indifference? If it has, it is a reparation easily made. Now is an interesting moment. With the expansion of our political landscape we may renew our perception, in those countries' stories, of the value of our birthright, then await new fiction, where a continent of localness can still be found.

As for Tyler Johnson, he may think he knows what the child will look like in 99 years' time, but unless he reads its novels, he will have no idea what might yet metamorphose.


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